Little Soldiers – Inside the Chinese Education System

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Note – Scott Alexander posted a “Review Review” of this piece on Slate Star Codex on January 22, 2020.

I’m a typical SSC reader when it comes to education. I love Scott’s graduation speech, I think Bryan Caplan is right, and I actively participate in our semi-regular tradition of talking about how much schools suck.

That’s why Lenora Chu’s Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve was pure nightmare fuel for me. It’s a non-fiction account of an ethnically-Chinese, American-born woman following her multi-racial child through the Chinese school system in Shanghai. While we complain about our soft, liberal, decadent school experiences in America or Europe, tens of millions of Chinese kids are subjected to a school structure that seems purposefully designed to make everyone as miserable as humanly possible.

Or at least that was my take-away. Lenora Chu has a kinder perspective on the system. Mostly.

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Lenora Chu

Lenora Chu grew up in Texas as the only-child of Chinese immigrants. Her upbringing hits every stereotype of Asian parenting you can think of, except her father was the domineering one (as opposed to the usual “tiger mom”). Lenora was a perfect straight-A student with no social life. She wasn’t allowed to play sports or enter any clubs for fear it would interfere with schoolwork. She was forced to give up every weekend to study Mandarin with a private tutor. After begging her parents for a pet gerbil, they agreed to let her have one if she won first place in a regional piano competition like her cousin had. Lenora described the following months as the most intense period of study and practice of anything she has ever done in her entire life. She didn’t win the competition. She didn’t get a gerbil.

Tense family relations grew testier as Lenora got older. By high school, she was having daily “volcanic” screaming matches with her father over everything from dating (“only at prom”) to Spring Break (“no”). Her only hope of future respite was college, but that turned out to be the final battle. The father wanted Lenora to go to an Ivy League school (she got into several) or to take the full-ride scholarship at nearby Rice University. Lenora wanted to go to Stanford to get away. After another colossal multi-hour screaming match, the father lamented, but only after shouting at his daughter that (paraphrasing a remembered quote) “if I’m going to spend this much money, you better make something of yourself.” And that Lenora would have to major in engineering.

Fifteen years later, Lenora was a fairly successful writer/journalist when she moved to Shanghai for her husband’s work, and brought along her three-year-old son, Rainey. This was in 2010, when Western people still thought China was cool. Everyone was talking about how China was going to become the next superpower, and so it was only a matter of time before it became liberal and democratic and chill. US-China trade was reaching new heights, tourists were flocking both ways, and rich Silicon Valley families were hiring Chinese nannies to teach their kids Mandarin.

Lenora and Rob briefly considered enrolling Rainey in an international pre-school with a bunch of spoiled ex-pat kids, but then they (ie. Lenora) had a thought – why not go local? If Rainey is going to live in China for a while, shouldn’t he immerse himself in the local education system? It would be a fascinating experience for Rainey and allow him to understand his cultural roots in a most authentic manner!

Fortunately, the family’s new apartment was right down the road from Soong Qing Ling, literally one of the best preschools in China. Unfortunately, it was also one of the most exclusive. Lenora attempted to walk up to the school’s gates and talk her way into a meeting with the principal 4+ times, but was always blocked by either a security guard or teacher.

So Lenora called her husband to the task. Her tall, white-skinned, blonde-haired, Mandarin-speaking husband. He got a meeting with the principal on the first attempt. A month later, Rainey was admitted to Soong Qing Ling.

Lenora’s decision to subject her son to a steroided version of the same culture and educational philosophy which made her childhood a nightmare is more than a little odd. A cynically-minded person might suggest that a career-writer like Lenora Chu may have been thinking about future book deals while trying to figure out her son’s future… but who knows.

To her credit, Lenora constantly expresses doubts throughout the book over whether she made the right decision. She strikes me as deeply Blue Tribe in her sensibilities. She stresses that she wants Rainey to be creative, independent, a leader, and even rambunctious (all notorious failings of Chinese education), but she is also sensitive to her cultural heritage and wants her son to never lose sight of where he came from.

So from the start of Rainey’s time at Soong Qing Ling, Lenora’s gameplan is basically: hope the Chinese education system supercharges Rainey’s discipline, math abilities, and obedience, while homelife counteracts bad effects and encourages all the soft, liberal values, hopefully resulting in a well-balanced child.

It sort of worked.

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Behind Closed Doors

During his first week at Soong Qing Ling, Rainey began complaining to his mom about eating eggs. This puzzled Lenora because as far as she knew, Rainey refused to eat eggs and never did so at home. But somehow he was eating them at school.

After much coaxing (three-year-olds aren’t especially articulate), Lenora discovered that Rainey was being force-fed eggs. By his telling, every day at school, Rainey’s teacher would pass hardboiled eggs to all students and order them to eat. When Rainey refused (as he always did), the teacher would grab the egg and shove it in his mouth. When Rainey spit the egg out (as he always did), the teacher would do the same thing. This cycle would repeat 3-5 times with louder yelling from the teacher each time until Rainey surrendered and ate the egg.

Outraged, Lenora stormed to the school the next day and approached the teacher in the morning as she dropped Rainey off. Lenora demanded to know if Rainey was telling the truth – was this teacher literally forcing food into her three-year-old son’s mouth and verbally berating him until he ate it.

The teacher didn’t even bother looking at Lenora as she calmly explained that eggs are healthy and that it was important for children to eat them. When Lenora demanded she stop force-feeding her son, the teacher refused and walked away.

A few days later, when Lenora dropped Rainey off, the teacher pulled her aside, away from the other students and moms. The teacher held back anger as she warned Lenora to never challenge her in front of others. She explained that nothing was more important for children than to respect their teachers, and that parents must support everything the teacher says. Though taken aback, Lenora apologized and agreed to this rule. But then she reiterated her concerns about having her son force-fed. In not so many words, the teacher responded that this is the “Chinese way” and if Lenora doesn’t like it, she should leave the school.

Much of Little Soldiers consists of these sorts of anecdotes. Lenora will hear something strange from Rainey or an expat friend or a sympathetic local, and will opt to investigate, usually to find that the situation was even more bizarre (and usually terrible) than she thought. A few examples:

One of Lenora’s local Chinese friends enrolled his son in a pre-MBA program. His three-year-old son. In a Masters of Business Administration program. Lenora asked what the kid learned at these classes, but didn’t get a clear answer.

Rainey told his mom that one of the teachers always refers to him as “Little Foreigner” in class. Lenora was pissed off, but Rainey didn’t seem to mind.

After Lenora noticed that Rainey became unusually quiet at dinner, he revealed that he was not allowed to speak during lunch at school. When Lenora asks a teacher why this is the case, she says that they are on tight schedules and if they talk, they won’t be able to finish their meals in the allotted time. Plus it’s dangerous for children to talk while eating because they might choke.

After being passively-aggressively insulted by Rainey’s teacher because none of the child’s grandparents live in China, Lenora accompanied Rainey to “Grandparent’s Day” at school. There, Lenora watched as 30 three-year-old children are ordered to chant compliments to their grandparents in unison and then give them massages.

Lenora finds out that Rainey is constantly reported to have “poor health” by the school. She investigates and finds that Rainey tells the nurse every morning at the daily health checks that he has a cough. Rainey eventually admits to his mom that he makes up the cough because it gets him a designation which allows him to drink more water than other students.

A local friend tells Lenora that she should buy luxury bags (Coach, Gucci, etc.) for Rainey’s teachers as a sign of respect, or else they will act unfavorably toward him in class. But Soong Qing Ling bans the practice, so Lenora begins meeting teachers for secret rendezvous outside of school at night to make deliveries. At one point, Lenora mentions to a teacher that she is going back to the US for a few weeks to visit family. This teacher gathers half a dozen other teachers and together they write a list of luxury bags for her to purchase in America and bring back to China to dodge the notorious Chinese luxury import tax. By Lenora’s calculations, the average cost of these bags, even in America, is about one month’s salary for these teachers. Lenora ends up having a falling out with one of the teachers after being accused of inflating a bag’s reported price by $50.

As Lenora hears more crazy stories from her son and friends, she keeps coming back to one question: “what does Rainey actually do in school?”

Lenora tries to ask Rainey, but he always replies, “we sit still.” He also occasionally mentions painting and eating, but that’s it.

So Lenora goes to Rainey’s teacher one day and asks to sit in on classes to observe. Lenora is told that this is not possible. So she asks if she can know a little more about what the school is teaching Rainey. The teacher tells her that she is already told everything she needs to know, and that this is the “Chinese way.”

Since Lenora couldn’t get a look into Soong Qing Ling, she went to another local school and bribed her way into a classroom-observation post with some well-placed handbags. She discovered that Rainey was basically right. Chinese preschool really does seem to consist of sitting still. Unless given different orders, all students were required to sit in their seats with their arms at their sides, and their feet flat on a line of tape on the ground. This is not an easy task for three-year-olds.

There were two teachers in the classroom with a classic good cop/bad cop dynamic. The good cop stood in the front of the room with the desks splayed out before her. She would give simple instructions like orders to get food, water, or sometimes paint, though usually she said nothing at all.

The bad cop was another teacher who prowled the classroom. Any time she saw a student remove a foot from the line, move arms from his side, or otherwise deviate from the instructions, she would yell at the student to fall back in line. Lenora spent about a week watching tiny kids get screamed at for trying to get water, shifting in their chairs, or talking to classmates.

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Confucianism

You can’t understand Chinese culture and education without understanding Confucianism. If the Western world is philosophically founded upon some mixture of Greco-Roman classicism, Judeo-Christianity, and Enlightenment liberalism, then China is founded on the teachings of Confucius. But to understand Confucianism, first you have to take a look at China.

According to Malthusian population dynamics, a population can only reach a certain height given its available resources. The closer it gets to that point, the more vulnerable it becomes to population collapses, like famine or plague.

Due to some combination of climate, food availability, culture, and maybe governance, China has historically been able to push its population closer to the Malthusian limit than any other region on earth. This has led to China always having massive populations and wealth, but also being more prone to population collapses. Chinese history is known for its dynastic cycles where ruling families united most or all of China for extended periods of growth, which then fall into stagnation, and finally collapse during cataclysmic eras of contraction. This reality has encouraged Chinese culture to favor stability as a primary aim.

Confucius was a 6th century BC Chinese bureaucrat whose teachings stand as an explicit codification of how Chinese society should order itself to encourage stability. Essentially, Confucius envisioned all of society as an integrated family unit. At each level, the parents protect, foster, and teach children. To reciprocate, children honor and respect their parents. Once parents are too old to provide, they become dependents to be taken care of by their children. The multitude of obligations within this network is known as familial piety.

Purely on the family-level, Confucius’s model is not too different from what we might find anywhere else in the world. But he introduces two major innovations to the formula.

First, there is an extraordinarily strong assumption of obligation in the family. Families are the fundamental societal unit in China, not individuals. All (normal) individuals are ultimately loyal to their parents above all else, including their children and siblings, and especially over their spouses. From the moment an individual is born, until the moment his last parent dies, he is expected to be in their… I’m not really sure what the right word is. Service? Vassalage? Something like that.

Even in the modern-day, strong familial piety is the norm in China. Most parents have direct control over all important aspects of their children’s lives. This control will lessen once a child is married, but will still remain strong until the parents die. From my personal observations, these controlled categories will include where a child goes to college, what he studies, where he works, who his friends are, who he marries, and where he lives (with his parents until marriage).

Confucius’s second big innovation is that the family construct is abstracted to all of society. The government is parent to the citizen-children. Companies are parents to employee-children. And of course, schools are parents to student-children. At every level of society, there is a system of mutual obligation based on an exchange of nurturing protection for subservience.

To Confucius, this structure was the only way to keep Chinese society stable at the high end of the Malthusian trap. If children were free to disobey their parents, citizens free to disobey their governments, apprentices free to disobey their masters, etc, then Chinese society would be pulled apart and chaos would reign. Only strict social norms enforced by authoritarian measures could keep China strong.Image result for chinese students lining up

Arbitrary Obedience

Once Lenora took a deep dive into Confucian philosophy, Rainey’s bizarre stories and what she had witnessed in the other school started to make more sense. The arbitrariness of teacher demands wasn’t a bug, but a feature.

There’s a good comment here by u/staggering_god about how American classrooms are designed to teach students to become modern white-collar middle-class workers. In the past, young people might have to learn how to farm or fight, but now they must learn how to show up to places on time, sit still in an office, write summaries, etc. Modern school systems are at least good at testing these skills, if not developing them.

The Chinese education system has a similar function, but with a different goal. Its concern is crafting Chinese citizens into good Confucians. Good Confucians obey orders from their superiors without question. They do not need to be creative or independent, only obedient.

When Lenora sat in on a kindergarten class, she witnessed an art lesson where the students were taught how to draw rain. The nice teacher drew raindrops on a whiteboard, showing precisely where to start and end each stroke to form a tear-drop shape. When it was the students’ turns, they had to perfectly replicate her raindrop. Over and over again. Same start and end points. Same curves. For an hour. No student could draw anything else. Any student who did anything different would be yelled at and told to start over.

The point of this exercise was not to teach students how to draw raindrops. Drawing raindrops is not an important life skill, and drawing them in a particular way is especially not important. Even the three-year-old students in the class seemed to realize this as many immediately created their own custom raindrop shapes and drew landscapes, all to be crushed under the mean teacher’s admonishment. The real point of the exercise was to teach students to follow directions from an authority figure. But more than that, the point was to follow pointless and arbitrary directions. The more pointless and arbitrary the directions are, the more willpower is required to follow them.

Incidentally, Rainey was considered a terrible child by Chinese standards, at least when he first moved to Shanghai. Two ayis (maid-babysitters) refused to work for Lenora after spending 15 minutes each with Rainey because he refused to follow their precise directions. Rainey’s teacher often complained about his behavior, including his propensity to get up from his chair in class without permission and to use the playground slide head-first. In one ultra-serious parent-teacher conference meeting, two teachers told Lenora that they were gravely concerned by Rainey’s habit of riding other students like farm animals. Lenora failed to stifle a laugh.

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Land of Loopholes

While the authoritarianism of the Chinese education system has a logic, it also clearly overreaches, even by its own terms. By Lenora’s analysis (which I fully agree with), China has an absurdly high number of overly-complicated rules governing everything. In any given venture, whether it be running a business, working at a company, or trying not to go to jail, the rules are so costly and byzantine, that no one can really follow them all, either because they can’t possibly know them all, or because following them would be so burdensome that they outweigh the benefits of the venture. As a result, everyone in China develops informal norms for subverting official rules.

For instance, at Soong Qing Ling, students are strictly limited in how much water they can drink. Rainey cleverly figured out a way to game the system and get more water by faking a cough every day.

Much of the corruption in Chinese society could also be framed within this paradigm. Lenora and most of the other parents gave “gifts” (ie. bribes) to teachers to ensure that their children got enough attention at school. Lenora also heard (and I have personally heard) of administrators at higher level schools holding student transcripts hostage until they get cash bribes.

IMO, these are both terrible abuses of power, but they make sense within the logic of the system. Schools pay remarkably low salaries in China despite their great cultural importance, and nearly all parents are willing to spend a little extra to help their children. This creates a Moloch situation where if any one parent doesn’t “play ball,” she will be out-competed by others who will. And if any one teacher or administrator doesn’t accept “gifts,” he will fall behind in wealth and social status to somebody who will. Hence, an informal super-system of corrupt relationships (known as “guanxi”) begins to take precedence over formalized rules.

This paradigm also explains the prevalence of cheating in Chinese schools. Everyone is taught that the official rules are more like loose guidelines. From my own experiences and what Lenora learns from her investigations, basically all Chinese students cheat, at least while they’re in China. They cheat on homework, tests, and everything else. It doesn’t matter if the school is terrible, great, or anything in between. The SATs and ACTs aren’t even administered in China (except Hong Kong) because cheating is so rampant.

Lenora even witnesses Rainey’s teachers cheating, and not even at something that matters. Lenora and her husband attend a day-long athletic competition between all the classes in Soong Qing Ling. In one round, fathers need to pass the three-year-old students through their legs in a big line, like throwing children through a tunnel. In blatant violation of the rules, one teacher starts crawling into the leg-tunnel and pulling students through. Lenora watched in sheer incredulousness as this teacher and all the fathers triumphantly celebrated their victory, in an athletic competition for three-year-olds, at which they blatantly cheated.

On the other hand, the flexibility of formal rules have their limits. If someone with real power wants to enforce a rule in china, he always can, even selectively or arbitrarily. This applies just as strongly to high-level party members in Beijing as it does to high-level administrators in schools. For instance:

Rainey had asthma, and it got considerably worse once he moved to the notoriously polluted land of China. Lenora wanted to keep an inhaler nearby for Rainey to use in case he had an asthma attack. So Lenora asked Rainey’s teacher to hold his inhaler in the classroom.

The teacher said they don’t keep medication in classrooms. They keep medications in the nurse’s room. On the other side of the school.

Lenora explained that the medicine was safe, non-toxic, and easily stored. It would be no bother.

The teacher said they don’t keep medication in classrooms.

Lenora asked if they could keep the inhaler in the nearby coat room outside the classroom.

The teacher said they don’t keep medication in coat rooms.

Lenora explained that if Rainey had an asthma attack and didn’t get his inhaler within two minutes, he could get brain damage or even die.

The teacher said they don’t keep medication in classrooms or coatrooms.

Lenora scheduled a meeting with the nurse and principal. She asked them if they could keep Rainey’s inhaler in his classroom.

They said they don’t keep medication in classrooms.

Lenora repeated all her arguments.

They said they don’t keep medication in classrooms. But they suggested that if Rainey has trouble breathing because of pollution, then he can sit on a tiny cot in the corner of the nurse’s room every single day instead of going outside for recess.

Lenora was outraged. She said that Rainey shouldn’t miss recess. Then she played her trump card – “are you really going to let my son die over this silly rule?”

The nurse and principal paused for a moment. Then the principal suggested that if Rainey’s health problems were so dire, he would be better off in a school for special-needs children.

Lenora gave up. She let them keep Rainey’s inhaler in the nurse’s office.

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Educational Piety

In America, schooling is often considered a de facto form of daycare, especially in the younger grades. But Lenora quickly came to realize that having a child in the Chinese school system was a lifestyle. She was just as much a part of the process as the teachers at Soong Qing Ling. Or at least she was expected to be. On the first day of classes, the school principal announced:

“At Soong Qing Ling, we don’t choose children… we choose parents.”

And:

“A child’s education should be a full-time job for at least one parent.”

This was meant literally. Parents were given daily assignments by teachers, ranging from helping their children with homework, to gathering material for projects, and even to being used as free labor for school events.

Everything was coordinated through WeChat, a phone-based social media platform in China that’s the equivalent of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter rolled into one. All the parents of Rainey’s 30-ish person class were corralled into a single Wechat group which sent messages ringing in Lenora’s phone at all hours of every day. Every time a teacher made a demand of the parents, a conga-line of mothers would respond affirmatively at once – “Yes, teacher” “right away, teacher” – often with praise thrown on at the end – “you work so hard, teacher!” “you’re so amazing, teacher!”

Lenora tells of the mother of one of Rainey’s classmates who worked her entire life to climb the corporate ladder at a massive firm. One day, the Soong Qing Ling teacher ordered the mother to attend a school event in the middle of a workday. At the same time, the mother had a meeting with her boss, one of the top executives in the company. The mother was so flustered, that she missed both meetings while trying to attend part of each one. In the aftermath, she was told by the Soong Qing Ling teacher that she should pull her child out of the school if she can’t come to events; and she was told by her boss that she will be fired if she misses another meeting.

A few weeks later, the mother quit her job.

This might be what I found the creepiest about Lenora’s experiences. It’s bad enough forcing children into kowtowing subservience, but grown adult parents were reduced to the same level. Lenora even had valid concerns that Rainey wasn’t being treated well because she had failed to pay adequate respects to his teachers:

One week, Rainey came home every day complaining about his feet hurting. Eventually Lenora found out that Rainey wasn’t wearing the right fancy shoes at chorus practice every day. Rather than wear the shoes Lenora had bought him, Rainey’s teacher was forcing him to surrender his shoes to another student who didn’t have any, but whose mother (at least according to the grapevine) had offered generous “gifts” to the teacher. Instead, Rainey was wearing leftover school shoes which were at least two sizes too small.

Eventually Lenora concluded that Rainey wasn’t actually being penalized by the teacher, but was merely collateral damage in the teacher’s attempts to repay favors to another student. Nevertheless, Lenora went on a mini-warpath at the school and shouted down the teacher until she let Rainey keep his shoes.

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Testing and Social Climbing

Why do students and parents put up with all this? Are they just brainwashed by an authoritarian culture and government?

Probably yes, at least to some degree. But there’s also a rational calculus at play.

Remember, China has always had an unfathomably large population. I’ve met Chinese people who describe themselves as having come from “small cities,” and then I google the city and see it has the same population as Los Angeles. With China’s recent economic boom, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted up to never-before-seen levels of wealth… but it’s also thrown people into never-before-seen levels of competition. There is an overriding sense amongst Chinese people that only the very-narrowest band of the highest achievers has a chance to rise above the masses. And only through education can they ascend to that echelon.

For all the problems of China’s education system, it was at one point arguably the most meritocratic in the world.

The Chinese Imperial Civil Service Examination System was probably started in the 7th century BC by the Sui Dynasty as a means of finding talented bureaucrats in the general population. It was perhaps the first open (to all applicants) and standardized test in the world.

As the system evolved over the centuries, testing became an ingrained component of Chinese culture. Any male Chinese individual, from the lowliest peasant to the wealthiest noble, could register for an exam (or series of exams). If he scored well, he could climb into the well-paid, secure ranks of the provincial bureaucracy. If he scored really well, he could make it all the way to Beijing and join the aristocracy. Of course, it wasn’t easy – in 1850, only 1 out of every 6,000 test-takers made it to Beijing. But while countless European geniuses were born and then died in abject agricultural poverty, the best and brightest of China had a way to succeed, and hopefully make their country a better place while they did it.

While the content and structure of the exam varied over time, core features always persisted. The knowledge body tended to be based on Chinese customs and esoterica, like memorizing poems and laws, rather than practical skills. Thus the ideal test-taker was not a genius who could seamlessly conquer any problem, but one who could focus his mind on prolonged periods (usually years) of study. Once again, the arbitrariness was a feature, not a bug.

The modern manifestation of the Imperial Exam is the gaokao. This single test given during the last year of secondary school is the sole determinant of the vast majority of Chinese students’ abilities to get into a domestic university. Its subject matter is certainly more practical than the old exams – math, Chinese literature, and English – though probably still fairly esoteric by Bryan Caplan’s standards.

Lenora stresses that though the gaokao is the flagship mega-test that everyone focuses on, basically all of Chinese education is a series of gaokaos. Students and parents believe that every homework assignment, quiz, and class test serves as a signal of a student’s ability in a giant country-wide competition to reach the top echelon of Chinese society. Every failure, no matter how small, sets a student back and jeopardizes his entire life.

This is why one of Lenora’s friends enrolled his three-year-old son in a pre-MBA program. It’s also why virtually all of Rainey’s classmates’ parents thought Lenora was a horrible mother for giving Rainey “idle time” on the weekends instead of enrolling him in Chinese writing classes, English classes, piano classes, algebra classes, etc. All the parents believed that by getting their kids into these programs at this stage (barely post-toddler), they were getting a head-start, and that head-start would carry into primary school, then secondary school, then university, then work, then life. It was all about getting ahead.

Lenora did her best to avoid the rat race, but found that it was too all-encompassing. At Soong Qing Ling, Lenora dreaded seeing the “Big Board” – a bulletin board hung up outside Rainey’s classroom where his teacher posted constant updates of students’ stats. Some of these stats were relatively innocuous – like the height and weight of every student – while other stats ranged from shoe size and blood type, to individual teacher’s comments on instrument playing (apparently Rainey had no sense of rhythm).

Naturally, Lenora didn’t care about any of this stuff, but the other parents did. She watched mothers gloat over the physical prowess of their three-year-old children, take shots at each other over public admonishments, and generally make mountains out of utterly benign molehills. Lenora’s enduring shame was that Rainey was bad at playing the recorder. Despite getting stern warnings from the teacher and other parents, Rainey never improved, and eventually he was the only student left out of the class’s recorder concert in front of all the parents.

Lenora realized that, again, there was a method to the madness. Soong Qing Ling was training students and parents to compete. A three-year-old who learns to compete over public displays of height, recorders, and blood types, will learn to compete over grades in the future. Parents who are ready to fight the same battles will drive their children into the fray for years to come. Everyone learned that they were at war, or rather, in a battle royale. Only the very best survive, and pre-school at Soong Qing Ling was just the beginning.

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But Wait…

Even though Little Soldiers is a non-fiction memoir, it contains a major plot twist.

After spending 75% of the book relentlessly complaining about her son’s Chinese education, with the occasional anecdote about how horrible her own culturally Chinese upbringing was, Lenora decides Chinese schools aren’t so bad.

After a few years in China, Rainey changed. Though Lenora constantly worried if Rainey’s creativity and leadership potential was being snuffed out, she couldn’t help but be impressed by his emerging self-control. He could sit still for longer. He always greeted people politely. He finished eating his food. He asked permission a lot.

Lenora didn’t realize what Rainey had become until she took him back to the US for a few weeks to visit family. There, the contrast between Rainey and his same-aged American counterparts became stark. Lenora’s friends’ kids ate junk food all day while Rainey asked for vegetables. They couldn’t read or do basic addition while Rainey was close to being bilingual and had started double-digit addition and subtraction by first grade. They wandered obliviously in their own worlds while Rainey’s Chinese grandparents were thrilled to receive respectful greetings every time Rainey entered the room.

As Lenora explored Rainey’s potential education future in China, she found plenty of evolved versions of all the bad trends – arbitrary authoritarianism, hyper-competitiveness, tedium, etc. – but she also found much to like. There was a logic to it all.

For instance, Chinese education is notorious for its emphasis on rote memorization – Lenora even watched three-year-olds being forced to draw raindrops one specific way over-and-over ad nauseum. But after talking to some Chinese teachers, Lenora came to understand that one cannot be innovative or creative without understanding the fundamentals of a given domain. Rote memorization may be boring, but it’s the most efficient way to learn key information which then can later be manipulated abstractly. This is the key to China’s success in mathematics, and why 1.4 billion people can learn how to read and write one of the most byzantine, arcane, ludicrously complicated writing systems on earth.

And even a lot of the dumb rules make sense in the context of China’s sheer population. One teacher tells Lenora that she can’t let any random student stand up and get water whenever he wants because then all of the 20 students in her class will get up and get water whenever they want. Then there will be chaos! Rainey’s teacher uses the same rationale to stop Rainey from going down the playground slide head-first – maybe Rainey can do it safely, but can every one of the 25 other students?

Though Lenora never uses the term, Chinese culture also seems to have a strong sense of “growth mindset,” which Lenora contrasts with the West’s emphasis on “talent” or “genius.” Virtually all Chinese parents genuinely believe that their children can rise to the top of their classes, or score high on the gaokao, or get the best comments on the Big Board. Every test, every tough subject, every challenge could be overcome… it was just a matter of discipline and willpower.

Lenora loved this idea. She found it inspiring and wanted to inculcate the go-getter attitude in Rainey. She even found some studies from prominent educational researchers to suggest that growth mindsets really do encourage children to try harder and ultimately do better in classrooms.

What really sold Lenora on Chinese education was that it apparently worked. At the time of writing the book, Shanghai was scoring first place in the world on the PISA exams, beating heavy-hitters like Norway and Singapore. Supposedly, education scholars and professionals all over the world were looking at China for wisdom. They all saw the bad, but they saw a lot of good too.

Ultimately, Lenora concludes that she was too harsh on the Chinese education system. She says that the ideal system is the merger of the West’s individual-focus with China’s learning-efficiency. After much deliberation, Lenora decides to keep Rainey in local Chinese schools up until 6th grade, at which point the schoolwork and competitiveness become too severe and she promises to move Rainey to a Western-style school. She hopes that his dual-experience across the cultural spectrum will give him the ideal education that doesn’t yet exist in any single school.

Image result for china

Conclusion

As I said, I’m a good SSC-reader and Caplanite. So while I admire Lenora for her adventurousness, thoughtfulness, and diligence in trying to understand the Chinese school system, I can’t help but wonder… what if this is all just a giant waste of time?

What if the potential of students is mostly innately determined, partially environmental determined by factors outside of institutional control, and only very-narrowly determined by environmental factors we can control? What if all the hair-pulling and arguing about rote-memorization, PISA scores, chair-sitting regulations, egg-eating, etc. is irrelevant because none of it will have a significant impact on students in the long run?

Maybe that’s the case. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I would never ever ever ever ever ever want to be in the Chinese school system. Nor would I want to subject my own (currently non-existent) children to it.

But then again, I’m not a Chinese parent. In Shanghai, the financial capital of China, the average post-grad salary from a good school is around $1,000 per month. Shanghai may look like a modern first-world city, at least at its center, but most of even its educated population lives on developing world wages. And that doesn’t even count the roughly 1/3rd of its population which migrates from the inland to work in construction, sanitation, etc. for third world wages. Sure, there are the rich financiers and factory owners driving their Lambos, but not many of them. Where any particular individual falls within this hierarchy basically comes down to one big test taken in high school… and if my child’s entire future as a migrant worker or Lambo driver came down to that one test… yeah, maybe I’d be willing to make the first quarter of his life awful to improve his odds of climbing to the upper echelons.

And besides, maybe there are gems of wisdom in the system. Perhaps children really can be taught to behave better or eat healthier food or whatever with the right training. Maybe there’s even a way to enforce these behavioral norms without making children miserable. Maybe.

I guess I couldn’t help but come away from the book with a sense of depressing apathy. There’s so much effort put into education by well-meaning people, but a lot of it just seems to make children and parents hate everything. China apparently spent 2,700 years perfecting its education system, and this is the result… students being force-fed, parents shamed into kowtowing, and teachers corruptly abusing their power. Yes, there are good people in the system to, and apparently the children learn something and it does give some sort of order to society, but I really, really wish they didn’t have to this way.

2 thoughts on “Little Soldiers – Inside the Chinese Education System

  1. Something that surprises me is the disparity between the U.S. and Chinese education systems and the final results. In the U.S., there’s nothing what’s described above. No arbitrary obedience, no sitting still for hours, etc. We don’t spend weekends learning other subjects, and some students end up bilingual just by speaking [foreign language] at home and English at school. Competition isn’t as explicitly taught (at least I never had any pages containing the everyone’s statistics posted for all to see).

    Yet when observing my Chinese friends at university (mostly STEM PhD students), they were not as intelligent as the American stereotype. Sure, they worked their asses off late into the night, but it seemed their good test scores were just a function of hard work and time spent studying, which, arguably, anyone can do, at least to a certain extent. I’ve seen this paper (https://www.pnas.org/content/116/14/6732) that shows that the average U.S. fourth-year student scores comparably to a Chinese student at a prestigious university (Project 985 and Project 211). Albeit, this is much later in life, but with the intensity and duration of education in their earlier years, I would have expected the Chinese students to score comparably, making me wonder where the inflection point is.

    Also, FYI: the image right before the “Arbitrary Obedience” section is not showing up.

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    1. FWIW, I largely agree.

      I can’t find it with some quick Googling, but I recall a study where paying students to get higher SAT scores boosted almost everyone’s scores EXCEPT Chinese students (or maybe Asian students in general?). I think the reasoning was that nearly all Western students could usually do better with extra effort and they lacked the motivation to rise to the very top of their potential until they got paid… but for good reason. Without the payment, it’s not worth it. The marginal return on those next 100 hours of studying is super low. Those extra test points aren’t that big of a deal. Most people would rather hang out with friends or have fun or relax or do anything else than to study another 100 hours for a 0.5% score increase.

      EDIT – Here’s what I was referring to: http://neatoday.org/2016/07/12/standardized-tests-rewards/

      It’s plausible that East Asian societies excel at squeezing out those extra few points, which accounts for their high test scores. But the trade-off is that students aren’t actually as smart as a Western student with comparable test scores.

      At the very least, considering the enormous number of students China produces and their scoring on international tests, we should expect far more hyper achievers than we currently see (ie. Silicon Valley start ups, musicians, authors, inventors, etc.).

      (And of course, everything I’m saying here refers to averages, there are exceptions on both sides).

      The images have always been screwy on this post. Looks fine to me right now, but sometimes it doesn’t. Weird formatting maybe.

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